Analysis: Grown-up Zach Auguste good for Notre Dame

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Consistently inconsistent in Atlantic Coast Conference games through late January, Notre Dame senior captain Zach Auguste decided sometime in the last six weeks to have an important conversation.

With himself.

Auguste was as frustrated as anyone with the up-and-down, unsure efforts. He would have a really good game one night, a really sluggish one the next. His final ACC run got off to an awful start in the league opener at No. 4 Virginia. Coach Mike Brey figured the Irish were better off for a second half stretch with Auguste on the bench.

Auguste finished with one point and two rebounds. That one stung. But afterward, he was the first out of the locker room to answer the whys and hows of the loss.

The younger Auguste would have been nowhere around.

Now as Notre Dame has needed it most with the regular-season winding down and post-season play knocking, Auguste has responded like a senior.

Like a captain.

Like a winner.

Like this is his team.

Auguste did it again Saturday in the final home game of his collegiate career. He scored 24 points and grabbed 11 rebounds for his fourth-straight double-double, eighth in the last 10 games and 18th of the season as Notre Dame (20-10; 11-7 ACC) played fast and free and focused to bounce back from consecutive league losses with an 89-75 victory over North Carolina State.

“I just grew up, man; I matured,” Auguste said of flipping the consistency switch. “I realized this is my last go-round so I’ve got to give it everything I’ve got.

“It’s a great way to show my leadership – by example.”

Leadership that many worried might not ever surface. Maturity had long been an issue with Auguste, who too often let bad plays and missed opportunities toy with his emotions to the point where he’d be tied up in knots. At some point, Auguste had to cut all that emotion loose and keep working. The next play he might make was more important than the previous one he didn’t.

Now, good or bad, sluggish or strong, Auguste continues to compete.

If he didn’t, the end of his collegiate career would pass quietly. And Auguste doesn’t do quiet.

“I started counting down games and realized I’ve got five games left, four games left,” he said. “I’ve got to make the most of it. I’ve got to continue to work.”

March also matters for Auguste. Non-conference games are history. So is the grind of late-January and early-February. This is money time. Winning time. For the Irish. For Auguste. For his future.

“The lights are brightest,” Auguste said. “It’s postseason now; a lot of eyes are going to be there. We’re playing for something now.”

Playing for another ACC championship. Playing to get back to the Elite Eight and beyond.

Touted for much of the season as a potential second-round NBA draft pick, Auguste slid out of a handful of mock drafts during the run of inconsistency. His play of late is sure to rekindle opinions of scouts.

He’s given them many reasons to notice, and given himself a chance at a bright professional future.

“He is a flat-out machine right now,” Brey said. “I am so impressed of the man and the leader he’s become”

Brey has long believed that as long as a team has good guards, it has a chance to do some special stuff. Irish guards Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia were good again Saturday in scoring 14 and 13 points. Jackson added seven assists; Vasturia returned to being his steady self.

But how far might Notre Dame go when it has a big man playing the way Auguste has of late?

As Auguste goes, so goes Notre Dame.

“We’ve got to ride him hard,” Brey said. “He plays with a great edge. There’s not a big man in the country playing better than Zach Auguste.”

When Jackson and Vasturia see Auguste battling in the low post, they know they have to be just as good on the perimeter. They were that Saturday. When freshmen Rex Pflueger and Matt Ryan see him going for big numbers every single night, they know they can no longer play like freshmen.

Neither did.

Pflueger scored nine points Saturday while throwing a defensive blanket over North Carolina State guard Anthony “Cat” Barber. The junior did get a game-high 29 points, but managed only one basket on Pflueger.

Ryan erupted for a career-high 17 points, all in the first half. On Senior Day, Ryan knew he had to do something for Auguste. To make sure he could leave the floor to a standing ovation in the closing minutes of a game where everyone in gold again felt good.

“There’s just no surprises from him,” Ryan said. “He’s doing everything he can to help us win and it’s a lot of fun to play with him right now.

“He’s just bringing it.”

This has been considered Jackson’s team for much of the year. But for postseason, this just might also be Auguste’s for the way he’s delivered when he’s needed to deliver. For the way he’s scored. The way he’s battled. The way he’s led, something his coach worried he might not ever do.

He’s doing it.

Auguste is driving this Irish train. He’s pulling teammates along. Has been for weeks. He’s picking guys up. He’s rebounding. He’s scoring. He’s competing.

“Auguste was really good around the rim,” North Carolina State coach Mark Gottfried said.

Auguste believes this is his time. It certainly was last season when he played his best basketball in March. He was a force as Notre Dame captured the ACC championship, and was even better in the NCAA tournament. That’s when he stared down Kentucky’s future NBA front line and delivered 20 points and nine rebounds.

Auguste has played that way for the last month. Maybe even better.

Notre Dame returned to its winning ways Saturday by playing faster on offense than it had at any time this season. The Irish raced the ball up the floor on misses quicker. They moved the ball to the next man with more purpose. They shot it quick and didn’t worry about missing. They made shots.

The Irish also got more guys involved. Ryan was big. Pflueger was big. Matt Farrell was big. But their big guy was again their big guy.

“This,” Ryan said of Auguste, “is his year.”

NC STATE (15-16): Abu 7-13 6-8 20, Barber 12-25 4-5 29, Co. Martin 0-3 0-1 0, Anya 2-4 0-0 4, Rowan 2-10 0-0 6, Freeman 0-0 0-0 0, Ca. Martin 6-14 0-0 16, Kirk 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 29-70 10-14 75.

NOTRE DAME (20-10): Beachem 3-8 0-0 8, Jackson 6-15 0-0 14, Burgett 0-1 0-0 0, Auguste 8-11 8-11 24, Vasturia 5-9 2-2 13, Pflueger 3-3 0-0 9, Torres 0-2 0-0 0, Ryan 5-8 3-3 17, Farrell 0-1 0-0 0, Geben 0-0 0-0 0, Colson 1-4 2-2 4. Totals 31-62 15-18 89.

Halftime_Notre Dame 45-39. 3-Point Goals_NC State 7-23 (Ca. Martin 4-10, Rowan 2-8, Barber 1-5), Notre Dame 12-26 (Ryan 4-6, Pflueger 3-3, Beachem 2-5, Jackson 2-7, Vasturia 1-4, Farrell 0-1). Fouled Out_Anya. Rebounds_NC State 38 (Abu 12), Notre Dame 39 (Auguste 11). Assists_NC State 11 (Co. Martin 4), Notre Dame 19 (Jackson 7). Total Fouls_NC State 15, Notre Dame 18. A_8,715.

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Twitter: @tnoieNDI